My Friend Louis “Lou” Curtis (1919-2010)

By Donald Versaw

We met in the Marine Base Band at San Diego in early January 1940.  Louis had enlisted several months earlier than I, but we were about the same age and so bonded more quickly than with the older ones, many of whom were World War I veterans.

I don’t think “Lou”, as he was known to others, ever knew a stranger, but he and I had more than most to talk about -- music, big bands and instruments, mostly. We found shady spots on Mission Bay to set up our music stands far enough apart so that our scales and arpeggios didn’t interfere with the other.  He was helpful to me as I was breaking in on a new instrument, a French horn. He played clarinet and saxophone very well.  Our life-long friendship began there.
                                                                                                                Lou in 2006

Most friendships in the Marines are interrupted by transfers, and ours was no different. Lou was ordered to Peking (Beijing) China in the early months of 1940 for the American Embassy Guard Band.  Later, I was ordered to Shanghai for the 4th Marines Band. It was more than a year later when the two Marine field bands stationed in China were combined and we met again. I always found it strange that these unfriendly international conditions made the renewal of our friendship possible.


China Band (all except one became POWs of the Japanese)
Mr. Curtis, far right

Our outside interests were diverse. Lou discovered a fitness club (Dr. Stembara’s House of Physical Culture).  I continued a serious hobby of photography at the Navy YMCA. But our music brought us together at rehearsals, concerts, parades and the many events in which our band honored our country’s presence in Asia. 

A war was being fought all around us, and the possibility of our regiment becoming more directly involved grew day by day.  Physical training was stepped up along with some weapons training for the band.  Late in November 1941 the regiment was ordered out of China. 

      Don in shanghai

The band played together for the last time, then we all marched down East Nanking Road. Lou was behind me while I followed the tallest trombone player.

last march in Shanghai (Nov. 28, 1941) Don and Lou were in the left column

At the famed Bund, Shanghai’s water front,  the President Liner Ships took us to the Philippines.  Less than two weeks later, while enjoying a short vacation-like time in this paradise, World War II began. 

China Marines leaving Shanghai to the Philippines (Nov. 28, 1941)

Lou and I lost contact when the band was integrated into a platoon of infantry. Our regiment was spread thinly around the Navy bases and defense forts at Subic and Manila Bay.  During the fighting for Corregidor we were sometimes closely positioned but had no contact.  After the island fortress capitulated I became a prisoner of war and was taken to Prison Camp #3, at Cabanatuan, in Central Luzon. It was there that Lou and I met again.

We were sorted out to be located in the same nipa palm-thatched, Swale-sided, bamboo-floored barracks on a former Philippine Army base.  This, I thought was the coincidence of a lifetime.  Adding to the mystery was that of all those broken, tired and march-weary prisoners who were stuffed into each of these barracks, the two of us were put in the same bin, along with three or other fellows.

Our situation might have been tolerable had it not been for a severe shortage of water and the meager diet of rice and a thin soup of strange greens, not to mention the horrible sanitation and the lack of medicine to treat the many cases of malaria. One young Marine who brought us our rations from the cooking area died in the same bay with us during the night from what some termed “cerebral malaria”.  We had no idea he was sick. I inherited his job and all its problems. Lou helped serve it to the others.  A pint of cooked rice and half cup of soup made from some really strange green plant.  We did the best we could dividing a partially filled five-gallon tin of cooked rice and another of soup equally among 50 or so hungry men.

In time the field officers and chaplains organized classes in the camp. Lou took an interest in one class on religion. It gave us something serious to talk about.  Sgt. Major Charles Jackson, a WWI vet also in our barracks, conducted some informal lectures on ancient history for which he was well qualified. At night Lou and I discussed what we had heard and learned and how well educated he was.  Lou had great respect for anyone who was smart.

When four soldiers were executed for “attempted escape”. Having to watch the entire proceedings was very upsetting and we spent hours trying to reconcile their suffering, with no success. 

We “celebrated” my 21st birthday only few days after arriving at the camp. Needless to say, there was no cake or candles. Lou had observed his 23rd on Corregidor earlier the same year under much less peaceful manner due to air attacks.  There was a lot of talk about how we would get a medal for what we going through.  I didn’t think so because of my feeling that losers deserve no honor. 

The first signs of malnutrition hit us in this camp. Both of us being fair skinned, we developed pellagra, a vitamin deficiency.  When aggravated by long exposure to sunlight the tops of our feet turned pink.

Then the monsoon rains struck in September, blowing many of the smaller buildings down. The rain arrived in horizontal sheets, and there was little for us to cling to when in the open. Men using toilet facilities were left squatting in the rain as the leafy roofs blew away.  But, like hundreds of others, Lou and I finally were able to get shower under the eaves of our barracks. It was quite a sight to see the lee side of most every building lined with naked men! Water poured off roofs and for a while we were fairly clean.

Lou and I watched as some of our former musician comrades fell sick and were carried away to another camp a few kilometers away. Some died in our barracks where we slept.   We buried our assistant bandmaster, Staff Sgt. Leon Koneski, in the little cemetery at the back to the camp. We pulled tall grass from the surrounding ground to cover his body. It was sad to see such an end for this fine musician.

The year wore away to November and rumors were flying -- Camp Three would be combined with Camp One.  The eternal optimism of the POW tends to believe that change will always be for the better, and we were able to gather strength for the nine-kilometer march to Camp One when our rations were bolstered by some meat the Japanese got from an experimental farm they confiscated.
       Cabanatuan POW camp

Not many trucks or vehicles were available for the operation but it did happen and we were then held in the same building at that camp for a time.

Large drafts of prisoners were being assembled and taken out to work details all over occupied Philippines.  One of these was a large group sent to Palawan Island to build an air field. Louis was shipped there to augment that work detail, only to receive brutal treatment at the hands of their Japanese guards. The men were beaten with pick handles. Kicking and slapping were regular daily occurrences. In spite of all the abuse and hardship Lou was fortunate to be returned to Luzon with nearly half the detail.  No one seems to know why this happened.  The 159 prisoners, including two of our bandsmen, were executed by the camp commander to keep them from being recovered by the advancing Allied forces.  My buddy, Lou was spared and made it out of Palawan before the massacre so in that sense he was lucky.  (More about the Palawan Massacre.)

During the time Lou was at Palawan I was at Clark Field on a ‘grass cutting” detail. The runways at this former US Army Air Forces base were grass.  A large draft of prisoners was moved there from Cabanatuan by rail. As prison camps go on a scale of 1-10 – (l being the worst) Clark Field was probably an “8”.  The facilities were more suitable for large groups as it had been the quarters for a USAAF Bomb Group.  The buildings were better built with composition roofs, wooden floors off the ground, wired for lighting and had cold water showers, toilets connected to sewers.  We were in the custody of an air craft service battalion.  This kind of a unit is usually composed of troops a level or two above a combat recon company.  We weren’t treated so brutally. The food, mostly rice and soup of course but much larger portions and more often with s more nutritious vegetables.  It was not a balance diet and so problems of mal-nutrition continued to develop.  Those prisoners who made contact with the indigents on occasion took advantage of obtaining beans, eggs and fruit.   Those things plus a generous distribution of Red Cross (IRC) food parcels helped significantly.   This condition lasted until April 1943 when one prisoner escaped. This changed the kind of treatment we had been getting a lot.  I developed dry beri beri, the kind that causes great pain in the feet. It abated somewhat after my bunk mates brought me food from the natives.

The nature of the work at Clark Field changed to include hard labor digging revetments into the nearby high ground for protecting aircraft from American Naval Forces should they come.  Also, a project to excavate rock and gravel from the ancient lava fields was begun on a large scale.  Prisoners were put to work sifting and sorting rocks by size.  This was in preparation of a new concrete runway at Clark.  As a result my condition deteriorated and couldn’t work as a result.  In April of 1944 I was sent back to the main camp at Cabanatuan.  Later, in July I was put on a draft to Japan to work in the coal mine of Kyushu.  At the same time Lou was shipped to Sendai north of Tokyo to work mines. Both of us had our voyages in “Hell Ships” to become miners.  Actually we rarely talked about that.  Most often we talked about how tough our buddies had it where ever they were. 

We served in Korea in the same 1st Marine Division, HqBn at the same time and learned how it was to be really cold.  He was one of the Bandmaster’s in the Division Band. I was in a mobile photographic and reproduction unit. We were never located near to the other.

Lou and I would not meet again, face to face, until after each of us had retired from the Marines each with 20 years’ service.  Although we kept in touch by mail, our first reunion was the Marine Musicians Reunion at San Diego in the spring of 1981 more than 20 years afterwards.  Over the years we have met at gatherings of former prisoners of war, exchanging news of our families, friends and experiences.  Louis was a fine writer and his cursive handwriting was frequent and happily received always.  He could write two pages on how fortunate he was to get a new mouthpiece for his saxophone.  He was proud of all his children and wrote about their successes. We exchanged news of our benefits and progress in life, love and limericks.  Rarely would he have anything bad to write or talk about, including war stories. He loved a good joke, which I typed up.

Often we roomed together at POW or Marine functions and once visited him in Florida and then in 1990 he visited me at my home in California. At the time of his death, we were making plans to be together at our next Marine Musician Reunion. He was a tireless traveler whose smiling face won him unending popularity. He was practicing to play his alto horn for his 91st birthday party, which would have fallen on the same date as the father of our country, George Washington, 22 February.  

                                                   Lou and Don attending a Marine gathering (2005)

To have such a friend with whom I shared so much for so long has been a precious gift. My gratitude for the privilege is not within me to express. I hope he has some way of knowing how much I will miss him.  He was born to please and entertain and did it with class and almost to the very last.

* Mr. Louis Curtis passed away on February 10, 2010.